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The Associated Press April 20, 2010, 3:05PM ET

ESPN bets on World Cup spurring US soccer boom

If U.S. soccer has developed over the years, American TV coverage of the World Cup has advanced even more.

At the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea, ABC and ESPN didn't even bother to televise six of the 64 games live because of the 13-hour time difference. Four years ago in Germany, 20 matches were announced from U.S. studios in a cost-cutting move.

It'll be different this time around in South Africa.

The Walt Disney Co. networks are sending 200 people from the U.S. and Europe to join 100 local hires -- slightly more than the 292 staffers the BBC plans to send. "SportsCenter" will be broadcast live from Johannesburg on a set shipped in, and 250 hours of original programming -- that's more than 10 days of TV -- are being produced.

"We've sort of pulled out all stops to make sure people pay attention this year, because we're convinced when they pay attention, they're going to fall in love with this," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content and acknowledged soccer supporter.

"This is important to our company around the world. We have the rights in Brazil. We have the rights in much of Asia. This matters to us on our 'SportsCenters' around the world. This is a global effort for our company. Within the United States, the amount of shoulder programming, promotional commitment we have to this is beyond any event we've done in the past."

Following criticism that Dave O'Brien, its lead announcer in 2006, lacked a depth of soccer knowledge, ESPN hired Sky Sports' Martin Tyler, considered one of England's top commentators, as its lead announcer starting with the U.S.-Australia exhibition on June 5. He'll combine with Ian Darke, Adrian Healey and Derek Rae to give ESPN British play-by-play broadcasters for every match.

J.P. Dellacamera, the regular play-by-play man on U.S. national team telecasts, will be on ESPN Radio with Tommy Smyth.

"We spent a great deal of time listening to announcers and discussing the various attributes that each had and ultimately these were the people that we felt were best-equipped to present this event to the United States regardless of whatever accent they might have," said Jed Drake, an ESPN senior vice president who is executive producer of its World Cup coverage.

ESPN also is bringing in a large number of former players to cover the matches, with Ruud Gullit, Efan Ekoku, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Steve McManaman, Robbie Mustoe and Shaun Bartlett providing analysis along with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. Former players Kyle Martino and Shep Messing will be part of the radio teams, and ESPN is placing correspondents with the national teams of the U.S., England, Mexico, Australia and South Africa.

Former American woman's star Julie Foudy is among three general assignment reporters, and Sal Masekela, a son of South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, will file culture and human interest stories.

Unlike most sporting events, the World Cup is on multiple networks in the U.S. While ABC/ESPN acquired rights to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments for $100 million, Univision Communications purchased Spanish-language U.S. rights for the two World Cups for $325 million. For 2002 and 2006, ESPN repurchased rights from Soccer United Marketing, a Major League Soccer affiliate that had bought them from FIFA.

Like ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2, Univision will broadcast in high definition on its main network, TeleFutura and Galavision, a total of 900 hours of coverage in all. Univision will be televising on and Univision Movil, and next-day replays will be available on Univision On Demand.

In addition to its Hispanic audience, Univision expects to attract English-speaking viewers to its networks.

"Every World Cup we have been very fortunate to have very good reviews and been critically acclaimed for our coverage even by non-Hispanics," said Alina Falcon, Univision's president of news. "It's a phenomenon every World Cup that we do get non-Hispanics that do watch our coverage because they feel that it's much more exciting the way we present the games and narrate the games."

Meanwhile, ESPN hopes its coverage, with burgeoning technology, will be omnipresent. Fifty-four games will be available on the Internet on ESPN3 (formerly ESPN360), with the exceptions being the ABC games blacked out because of affiliate issues. Matches will also be on ESPN Mobile. Both are important distribution complements because many games start on weekdays during work hours.

To help promote the World Cup and soccer in general, ESPN has vastly expanded the sport's presence on its networks. It televised the 2008 European Championship -- drawing 3.76 million viewers for the first U.S. network telecast of the final -- added 48 live English Premier League matches to ESPN2 that it bought from Fox Soccer Channel, and purchased some rights to Spain's La Liga from GolTV, coverage mostly on ESPN Deportes.

Although it did lose the European Champions League to FSC, it appears to be on the verge of gaining rights to the 2012 European Championship and it is expanding Premier League coverage to about 85 matches next season. In addition, it retains its MLS package.

World Cup ads started airing months in advance. ESPN thinks the tournament will dominate a time period when soccer overlaps the U.S. Open golf tournament, the NBA and NHL playoffs, and Wimbledon.

"It's clear that there's been a significant upgrade in the attention we pay to the world's sport," Skipper said.

While Univision has the Spanish-language rights, ESPN found a loophole and will televise games on ESPN Deportes -- in Portuguese. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were only 565,000 Portuguese-speaking people in the U.S. population.

"We certainly feel that there's a limited audience out there for interest in Portuguese," Falcon said.

ESPN heads to South Africa finding that FIFA has loosened up. It used to be that ESPN was hugely dependent on the world feed, allowed only to add a single camera for World Cup games involving the U.S. national team. Now, Drake says ESPN is free to produce World Cup telecasts pretty much in the same manner it televises American sports leagues.

Ad sales have been strong, with FIFA partners Adidas, Anheuser-Busch, Hyundai and Sony buying time along with AT&T, Cisco, EA Sports, Heineken, M&M Mars and the U.S. Marines.

Anheuser-Busch and M&M Mars also bought time on Univision, joined by Allstate, Best Buy, Castrol, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Corona/Mondelo, Fujifilm, General Motors, Marriott, McDonalds, Miller, Nationwide, Nike, Paramount Pictures, State Farm, T-Mobile, Time Warner Cable, Unilever, Valvoline, Verizon, Volkswagen and Wal-Mart.

"Many of them are treating this like the big event that it is, and launching new creative and really activating brand in a very big way across all of our platforms," said David Lawenda, Univision's president of advertising sales.

That's a big change from the first U.S. World Cup telecast, when NBC rebroadcast the BBC's coverage of England's win over Germany in the 1966 final. As recently as 1978, the tournament wasn't on U.S. TV at all, with closed circuit transmissions the preferred method.

ABC televised the 1982 final, and ESPN, PBS and the Spanish network SIN combined to broadcast the other games. Four years later, at the tournament in Mexico, only 22 matches were shown on U.S. English-language television -- 15 on ESPN and seven on NBC.

Now, ESPN2 will go all soccer for 24 hours leading up to the opener. Even the pre-World Cup concert will be televised live on ESPN on June 10, with an edited version replayed on ABC the following night.

Drake said Skipper has pushed for all the resources.

"It's really in some measure a reflection of his belief that this sport will become a major sport in this country, and I'm totally with him in that," he said.

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